COVID-19: How we’re empowering orphans in Nigeria, Africa —Olugbenga Ogunbowale, social entrepreneur and founder of TOES

Olugbenga Ogunbowale is a Mandela Washington Fellow, a Tony Elumelu Foundation Fellow, a social entrepreneur, the CEO of Epower, and the founder of The Orphan Empowerment Society (TOES). In this interview by Kingsley Alumona, he speaks about his activities and his advice for people working in his field.

 

If you met someone who knows nothing about your work, how would you describe what you do? And, what about it inspires you?

I am a social entrepreneur working to end orphan poverty in Africa by equipping orphans with free vocational skills, medical care and food, education and social acceptance on their own terms, without waiting for aid, through my NGO, TOES.

What inspires me about my work at TOES is the ripple effect our impact has: volunteers find purpose and secure jobs and scholarships. Orphans and caregivers escape poverty and create wealth. Communities access affordable products and services.

 

Tell us about the moment you realised you wanted to do this work. Where were you then? And who were you with?

It was around 2013. A friend of mine decided to celebrate her birthday by giving relief materials to an orphanage in South-western Nigeria, and she invited me along. There, I met Ruth, a 10-year-old with battered shoes, a hunger-stricken frame and hair full of ringworm. Ruth shared tooth brush with other children, barely took her bath with soap and hoped daily to not go hungry, alongside other fifty orphans at the small orphanage. These children were in desperate need of food and medical help.

Currently, we’re ending orphan poverty by empowering over 23,000 orphans with free vocational skills training, food and medical supplies across 19 African countries.

 

 What steps are you taking to improve your community in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in Africa, TOES has been working round the clock to provide palliatives to orphans worst hit. So far, we’ve reached out to orphans across Nigeria, Chad and Sierra Leone. In all of these places, we provided nose masks to them, taught them hand-washing techniques and educated them on the coronavirus.

In Cross River, we provided free medical care and foodstuff to 45 orphans in Blessed Hope and Faith Foster Family. We also donated foodstuff and toiletries to 37 orphans at Infant Jesus Orphanage Home and held a talent hunt. In Imo, we provided one month’s supply of food and toiletries to 28 orphans at Nchekwube Umuaka Home for Orphans and the Less Privileged. We taught them how to make/produce peanut for personal and commercial purposes.

In Lagos, we empowered 50 orphans in House of Mercy Children’s Home, and Heritage Homes Orphanage. We provided one month’s supply of food and toiletries, and four cartons of hand sanitizer. In Enugu, we empowered 75 orphans at Daughters of Divine Love Charity Home, Tarma Sarc Orphanage, and Guardian Angel Motherless Babies Home with one months worth of food supply.

In Kwara, we empowered 60 orphans at Hope Orphanage with one months’ worth of food and toiletries. In Oyo State, we donated 2 weeks’ worth of food and toiletries to 150 orphans at Jesus Kids and His Heritage Home. We organised a dancing contest there as well.

In FCT, we empowered 20 street children and their parents at Beggar’s Camp, Federal Housing Estate, Lugbe, with one week’s worth of food and toiletries. In Osun, we empowered 15 orphans at Abiye Orphanage Home with 2 weeks’ worth of food and toiletries and carried out COVID-19 sensitisation there too. In Ogun, we empowered 170 orphans at Yemisi Alogi in Abeokuta and Ijamido Homes in Ota with one months’ worth of food and toiletries and COVID-19 sensitisation.

In Niger, we empowered 18 orphans at Orphanage home (Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development) with one weeks’ worth of food and toiletries. In Akwa Ibom, we empowered 50 orphans at St Joseph’s Orphanage Home, Nwaniba, Uyo, and St. Anthony of Padua’s Centre for the Destitute with one months’ worth of food and toiletries.

In Sierra Leone, we empowered 30 orphans at St George’s Orphanage. We provided them with food items, wash-hand basins, soaps, locally-made face masks and sensitisation about COVID-19. In Chad, we donated two months’ worth of food and toiletries to 76 orphans at Orphelinat Dieu Bénit.

In total, TOES has provided free medical care to 105 orphans, donated 773 nose masks with free COVID-19 sensitisation and provided free food to 824 orphans across 11 states in Nigeria, as well as Sierra Leone and Chad. And, we’re just getting started.

 

 What is one challenge you faced in launching your organization? How did you overcome it?

Doubters. TOES was supposed to be a class project. I was elected class president in a prestigious entrepreneurship program. The election left the class divided. The CSR initiative I proposed was about helping orphans acquire practical, in-demand vocational skills so they can create wealth for themselves without having to rely on seasonal aid. I tabled it before the class, but it was thrown out. I had almost given up on the idea when my then campaign manager, Hannah Bassey, told me she was excited by the idea and that we could do it by ourselves.

That December, in 2016, Hannah and I reached out to four more friends and the six of us, spread across six different states in Nigeria, organized the first edition of ‘December to Remember’, which later become TOES, empowering 300 orphans for free.

 

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life?

The most important one is that greatness is a choice. You choose to be divergent, to be excellent, to be great. It’s up to you. Nobody becomes great by accident—you have to work for it.

Even when I had no passport and zero bank balance, I kept telling myself that “From Accra to Ankara, and from Warsaw to Washington, kings and queens would request my presence and I would bless the world with my essence.” Facebook took me to Accra. Mandela Washington Fellowship took me to Washington. Finally, seek out mentors and role models.

 

What change do you want to make in your community? What do you want your legacy to be?

I want to end orphan poverty in Africa. Where do orphans come from? War, disease, poverty, natural disasters, neglect, abuse, child-slavery, religious inequity, child prostitution and more. Beyond suffering and the ultimate tragedy of death, orphans that survive, often do so in ways that demeans and criminalises them. This is exactly why I founded TOES.

As for my legacy, I would like to be remembered for lifting millions of Africans out of extreme poverty.

 

What is your advice for people in your field or interested in working in your field?

Focus on real impact, not just numbers. Lots of NGOs organise programs that reach hundreds, sometimes thousands at a time, but have little impact to show weeks, months and years after. Evaluation is key. It’s better to help 5, 10, 50 or 500 people and give them a stronger footing over an extended period than to try to empower 10,000 people at once with little resources, no follow-up, no evaluation and no sustainability plan.

 

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